‘Expensive and nutrient poor’: UAE survey finds 80% of people want healthier options in vending machines
Water, chocolate and chips were reported as the most frequently purchased items currently, according to this online survey distributed to 1250 students and staff at the University of Sharjah, UAE.
Traditional vending machines stock snacks, confectionery, and soft drinks, which are mainly energy-dense, and nutrient-poor foods.
As there are currently limited data in the UAE on the frequency of consuming vended foods at universities, and the attitudes and behaviours regarding vending options, researchers from UAE and Australia administered an online questionnaire on the current food choices, and consumers attitudes towards vending machines in UAE.
“Findings can be used to inform stakeholders of current vending behaviours and to plan tailored interventions to improve the nutritional quality of vended items and promote healthier food choices,” researchers published in Foods.
The questionnaire collected data on the frequency of using vending machines, frequency of purchasing different foods and beverages, and what participants thought of the current range provided.
75% of participants reported using vending machines at least once per week and the rest did not report using them.
For users of vending machines, the most common reasons for purchase were hunger or thirst, lack of time, and snacking between meals.
Among vending machine users, the most popular products purchased were water (91%), chocolate bars or wafers (56.9%) and chips (40%) at least once a week.
More than half of the participants did not purchase cookies or biscuits, candies, nuts, soda, iced tea, energy drinks, flavoured milk and fruit juices from vending machines.
Between genders, the frequency of buying nuts, soda, iced tea and energy drinks was higher in males than females.
These results further validated the low nutritional value of current vending machine products.
A recent study in the UAE assessed the nutritional value of snacks and beverages in vending machines at four university campuses and revealed that 65% of them were calorie-dense and offered a high content of sugar, sodium, and saturated fat
Universities play a key role in promoting healthy eating on faculty, staff, and students through their policies and practices, however, the food environment in universities still offer largely unhealthy food and beverages over healthier options, including through vending machines.
What people wish to see
In the current survey, more than half of the participants agreed that food items provided in vending machines were expensive.
Over 81.8% of participants wish to see more healthy snacks such as fresh fruits, baked chips, sandwiches, dry roasted nuts and dark chocolates, and 85% want healthier drink options.
“Our data suggest that users of vending machines were more likely to buy healthier food options; this indicates that they are aware of the low nutritional quality of vended foods and might make better choices if environmental changes were implemented to increase offerings of more nutrient-dense options,” researchers said.
Most participants reported that they were unlikely to buy plain milk, fresh vegetables, dried fruits, frozen yogurt, protein bars, and plain yogurt in vending machines.
“Such findings are important when planning interventions at the university and community level and could be used to make informed decisions with the supplying companies.”
In Singapore, FoodNavigator-Asia recently interviewed healthy snack company Boxgreen who has ventured in the vending machine business, “Boxgreen’s mission is to make snacking easy, fun, and most importantly, easily accessible. So vending machines are something that we thought are in line with our mission, making our range of quirky and healthy snacks available on demand to new and current customers,” said co-founder Andrew Lim.
To help guide consumers in making healthier choices, providing nutrition education may be one way, according to researchers.
One limitation of this study was its university setting which limits the generalisability of the results to other settings in the UAE.
“Consumption, Attitudes, and Trends of Vending Machine Foods at a University Campus: A Cross-Sectional Study”
Authors: Hayder Hasan, et al.